Observing an L.A. Photographer: seventh in a series
Monica Almeida's job requires her to cover a lot of ground. The Los Angeles-based New York Times staff photographer is liable to, as she puts it, "be sent on assignment anywhere west of the Mississippi.” However, a great deal of her working time is taken up within Los Angeles. Almeida has the perspective of a native Angeleno who covers Los Angeles for an east coast newspaper. There is broad diversity in the stories she shoots. This year alone she has covered the presidential campaign and the Academy Awards, gay marriage and the Chatsworth train crash. Her editors expect her to deal with a wide range of assignments, juggling the often-difficult logistics of an east coast deadline.
Almeida, 48, grew up in La Puente. After graduation from Catholic school she attended Cal State Fullerton and began working at the Los Angeles Times as a customer service clerk in circulation. She transferred to Cal State Long Beach and studied photojournalism, acquiring basic darkroom skills and working on the school newspaper. That’s when she began to discover the genre of interpretive documentary photography which continues to inform and inspire her work. “While in college I fell in love with photography through the work of Henri-Cartier Bresson, Mary Ellen Mark, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Garry Winogrand, Roy De Carava, and later many of the Magnum photographers,” she says. Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide is one of her current favorites.
Almeida continued working at the Los Angeles Times as a copy messenger and eventually scored an internship as a desk assistant in the Southeast bureau. That led to a photo internship during the 1984 summer Olympics, then work as a Times freelancer. A 1985 "Friends of Photography" workshop with Mary Ellen Mark "really changed my perspective" she says. "It opened up my world to more artistic documentary photography. It really blew me away." She continued to refine her technical skills with classes in fine art printing and the zone system of exposure (developed by Ansel Adams) at Otis Art Institute.
Hopeful for a full-time position at the Los Angeles Times, Almeida was told by the director of photography in 1986 that due to a hiring freeze there was no spot for her. "They told me the best thing to do was go to a paper in another city and get experience". Though disappointed, Almeida realized she was ready to leave Los Angeles. She had never been east of Arizona. A three-month tryout with the New York Daily News led to a full-time job.
"I like to say that I was born and raised in Los Angeles, but grew up in New York. I went to school and started my career here but my first full time job as a photographer was in New York City. I found a freedom to move and explore with a camera and develop my eye and sense of timing and observation in a way that was difficult to do in Los Angeles." While at the Daily News, she participated in the "Day in the Life" series of photo books. For "Day in the Life of California," she did a ride-along with the LAPD.
After five years with the Daily News she took a buyout with the intention of satisfying her desire for travel, but full-time employment came knocking once again. The New York Times was hiring photographers and they liked what they saw in Almeida's portfolio. At the NYT the scope of her work broadened. She covered both Clinton presidential campaigns, the Oklahoma City bombing, sports, entertainment, and the usual array of local New York City news events including "hundreds of parades." She was also, as a news photographer familiar with the lay of the land in Los Angeles, sent back here to cover big stories including the 1992 riots and the 1994 Northridge earthquake.
Offered the opportunity to return to her hometown as the only staff photographer in the New York Times Los Angeles bureau, Almeida took it. She loved New York but missed her family and the balmy Southern California weather. "I suffered the winters!" she says. On a more serious note, Almeida says, "after spending so many years on both coasts I am well aware of the cliches and stereotypes that are tossed back and forth. Now that I'm back home I'm pretty sensitive to it and find that there is sometimes a tendency for people on the east coast to think of Los Angeles as a quirky and superficial place centered in Beverly Hills and Hollywood. Being from the eastside of Los Angeles I know that there is nothing further from the truth…that the glitzy, artificially tanned and celebrity charged culture so predominant in today’s mainstream media is only a fraction of reality.”
Like most in her profession, Almeida has fully converted to digital equipment. The last time she shot film was several years ago. She has also recently begun shooting video for the New York Times website. "New media has opened up a whole new world,” she says. “I shot a short piece about the Arlington West memorial near the Santa Monica Pier; thousands of crosses put up each Sunday morning by volunteers for Veterans for Peace in memory of the American soldiers killed in the war in Iraq. I spent several Sundays taping the volunteers placing crosses on the beach and interviewing family members who were there to honor their loved ones. Not your typical Southern California beach scene.
“As a photojournalist I'm drawn to real people stories; personal stories that can humanize issues that are often discussed in abstract terms and statistics...immigration, poverty, the economy…"
Almeida is among the dwindling number of photojournalists who began their careers using pre-digital techniques. Nowadays young photojournalists will most likely never see the inside of a darkroom. Technical matters aside, her work is rooted in the tradition of the compassionate and socially concerned photojournalist personified by image-makers like Lewis Hine, W. Eugene Smith, and Almeida's photographic hero, Mary Ellen Mark. The New York Times – and Los Angeles -- is lucky to have her.
All photos: Monica Almeida / New York Times